It is an interesting coincidence that in the week the world has been gripped by the televised trial of the self-confessed Norwegian mass killer, Anders Behring Breivik, Britain also had a taste of how justice can be seen to be done via TV.
In the High Court in Edinburgh, Judge Lord Bracadale was recorded, passing sentence on a convicted murderer David Gilroy, who killed his former lover. Scotland has allowed TV cameras in court rooms since 1992 but under such draconian restrictions that until now the facility has only been used by documentary makers.
The Scottish judiciary's decision to allow sentencing remarks to be broadcast soon after the event, as part of contemporaneous news coverage, is a significant advance. The court spokeswoman who explained the decision could have taken her script from the campaigning blogs and articles I and other UK broadcasters have been writing for years. She said:
"We try to be as open and accessible as possible and explain the justice system to the public. This is another opportunity for us to allow the public to see what goes on in court. People can't get in court every day to see what happens and justice should be seen to be done and this is an opportunity for the public to see an accused being sentenced."
Precisely. It is gratifying that the arguments we have been employing all these years are now being used by the judiciary.
Since the British government is about to announce a relaxation of the prohibition on televising courts in England and Wales, this development is welcome. The Scottish courts have set the pace; perhaps it will encourage the English judiciary to go further than its initial proposal to only allow the televising of legal argument and judgments in the Appeal Court. If that goes well, they say, they might consider allowing cameras to record criminal trial sentencing.
Meanwhile six hundred miles away, across the North Sea, the terrifying and shocking killing spree committed by Anders Behring Breivik is being rehearsed before TV cameras in an Oslo court. For Norway, the television coverage of this trial is clearly part of a national catharsis. Norwegians need to understand why Breivik did what he did.
What is interesting is the openness of the process while giving the judges the final say on what is and isn't televised. As a liberal democracy, Norway believes in open justice, but not at all costs; they banned the cameras from recording Breivik's own statement rather than allow him a platform for his extreme views. The premise that the judge remains master or mistress of the court and has the final say in what can be broadcast has been central to the broadcasters' arguments all along and should reassure any doubters who fear the courts will become a broadcast studio with TV directors in charge.
The Norwegians and the Scots have demonstrated it is possible to televise courtrooms without jeopardising the judicial process. Let's hope it convinces the few remaining opponents of allowing camera into the English and Welsh courts.
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